Portia Faces Life - 9/9/2019
Rik Wallin was born as Richard Michael Knapp on November 26, 1961 in Connecticut.
He graduated from Jonathan Law High School in Milford Connecticut in 1969. He attended and graduated from Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport with a degree in Computer Programming and development of computer software.
In 1995 he met the love of his life, Sven (Wynn) Andreas Wagner. In 2002 he was injured in a motorcycle accident that left him with a severe traumatic brain injury, blindness in one eye and deafness in one ear. He was in a coma for two weeks and in out-patient neuro-psych rehab for every weekday for 9 months learning how to talk, type, cook, walk and to regain motor and mental function.
Last year Rik lost his partner of more than 25 years and husband of 3 years, Sven Wallin due to suicide. He struggled to accept life without Sven, and faced loneliness and increased amounts of social isolation, which unfortunately is common in LGBTQ older adults. He found brief moments of happiness and respite from the physical and emotional pain that ravaged his life by attending events with an LGBT grief support group and the Silver Pride Project.
Rik succumbed to the mounting pain in his life with an act of suicide two weeks ago.
Last Sunday, we celebrated his life with a memorial service at the Legacy of Love monument on Cedar Springs and Oak Lawn Avenue in Dallas, and toasted his memory at his favorite Bar, the Hidden Door in Dallas by sharing a beer and the ritual of pouring a sip out for the brother who is no longer among us. Rik Wallin was my friend. He was smart, creative, funny, and larger than life… He was loved and will be missed.
“Just because someone is smiling on the outside, doesn’t mean they aren't hurting on the inside.”
When I learned of Rik’s death, A shock wave went through me and I struggled to understand what had happened, and kept asking myself the question: How could something like this happen? I had countless moments of self-blame, confusion, and despair. He was my friend, I tried my best to get him out of the house, tried so hard to fill those empty moments of his life. After all, when I started the Silver Pride Project it was because I KNEW how devastating social isolation can be…ESPECIALLY in the LGBT senior community! Over and over I asked myself, where did I go wrong? What more could I have done? I had to step back from everything for a while to take some mental health time, not just to grieve the loss of my friend but to also think about how there could have been a different outcome for my friends pain, and the pain I was now feeling. Everyone said they could see it coming, and THAT hurts most of all because I DIDN’T! The nights we spent talking because we couldn’t sleep. The days we spent comparing our physical pain and ailments. So much we shared, so many things we had in common. The loss of a spouse and the loss of a career both rank high on the list of things that put you at risk for suicide. When I became disabled and was no longer able to work in a profession that I practically lived for the depression was so deep and unyielding that it frightened me.
I was close to calling an end to my time here on this planet a few times, each time believing it was the only way to correct things and to truly put my mind at ease. I felt like it was the only way to get past the physical pain and the feelings of uselessness. Thankfully though, I had a wife that saw what I thought I was hiding and made me get help, which wasn’t easy by any means but necessary for healing.
I thought I understood the depths of Rik’s pain. Yet, I never saw it coming.
Suicide is such a huge and unspoken issue for so many LGBT elders. One expert says that a person “thinking about suicide may not want to die but is in search of some way to make pain or suffering go away.” Ageism can lead to isolation and depression. We also know that the realities of living alone after losing a partner or spouse, especially after so many years together can bring about a sense of loss and grief so great that suicide seems the only answer.
As I looked back over Rik’s Facebook postings, in hindsight I can see the loneliness…the cries for help. I can almost feel the aching for human contact that he yearned for beyond the three or four hours that he would spend with our group…beyond the conversations we would have. To be part of a couple for so many years and then find yourself not only just alone, but no longer young and beautiful with a house filled with friends was more than he could stand. Reading about the times he would go to The Hidden Door seeking some companionship or some hook-up and not being seen is heartbreaking. The issues with lack of monetary income, increasing issues with a house over a hundred years old that drained his disability check each month. Yes…I see it now!
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
But what can we do? How can we make it better?
You may not be the one who is battling with depression and/or with the thoughts of suicide, but someone you know may just be, so keep a watchful eye out for the warning signs
Don’t be afraid to act if necessary. Because of stigma in this country when it comes to mental health most people are ashamed to speak up out of fear of ridicule and/or being considered weak. Bottom line, they will not come to you, you must go to them.
Sometimes your perception of things is askew, things aren't always how they appear. With that said, do your friends a favor and pay attention, take nothing for granted because by the time you realize there’s a problem it could already be too late.
We ask each other, “How are you” but we don’t want to know, we only do so to be perceived as caring individuals, of course not all but most for sure. God forbid they actually tell us their troubles because then they are considered complainers and in our busy lives and hectic schedules, we don’t have time for that.
We are programmed to act concerned and compassionate to our fellow humans because it’s the right thing to do, but the truth of it is that we don’t want to be bothered. With the social stigma that already comes attached to depression, this way of being only makes it more complicated and risky for someone to feel comfortable enough to open up and honestly share what hinders them with us. We need to be there for each other and stop trying to hide from each other!
We can change the environments that cause our elders to feel so alone and isolated. We can encourage them to get out and have contact with others. We can offer them our support. We can plan activities that are inclusive and not always geared towards the young…and we can SUPPORT organizations that offer ways to meet people that can turn into friends. We can do our part to decrease social isolation. I’m doing my part, but I need YOU to help me.
I wish that love alone had been enough to keep Rik here with us. I did love him, and I do believe that he knew it. It just wasn’t enough. A suicide doesn’t necessarily mean someone didn’t believe they were loved.
Unfortunately, there are people who follow thru and succeed in ending their lives, and then there are others, who by the grace of God make it through these dark times and move forward in a positive direction. Rik was the former, I am the latter. I will honor my friend’s life by working hard to decrease the social isolation that ravages the LGBT senior community. I will work towards providing a source of resources for my community of elders. I will not let his death be in vain.